One need not ponder whether Birds: Poetry in the Sky is more a bird book or an art book: it fits each category. But whatever shelf it belongs on is really irrelevant – it’s enough to say that the book is magnificent.
The multi-award-winning photographer Christian Spencer, an Australian native, has lived in Brazil for many years; the birds of both countries are represented here. The book is divided into five chapters of sorts though, since there’s very little prose, it might be more accurate to call them “themes” – relating to images of hummingbirds (twice), birds in flight, birds in the water, and birds in trees.
The glitziest star of the show is the first section, titled “Winged Prisms: Hummingbird Rainbows.” In 2011, while making a film, Spencer discovered an unusual prism effect caused by “a mix of specific atmospheric conditions and the texture of the hummingbirds’ delicate feathers.” Available, due to the sun’s varying alignment and the birds’ migrations, for a limited number of days only, it caused the hummers’ wings to be filled “with a wash of rainbows,” like this one, which he titles “Sundance”:
. . . and this, “Opal Wings”:
The images (these two, of South America’s Black jacobins) are exquisite, and entirely natural (though beyond humans’ ability to see, at least most of the time); but the effect seems like a cross between surrealism and something otherworldly, heavenly. Most remarkably, Spencer’s photos are, according to his publisher, unedited.
Other birds, Spencer demonstrates, change color when wet, like this Violet-capped woodnymph (which, when dry, has a bright metallic green body):
The rest of the book includes other species, such as, in the “Birds in Flight” section, what Spencer calls “the most beautiful of birds,” the Blue-and-yellow macaw (below, left) and, in the “Birds and Trees” section, Galahs taking off from a Coolibah tree with, he says, a clear outline of a map of Australia (below, right). Talk about being in the right place at the right time . . . .
In endnotes, Spencer gives the background story for a few of the photographs. This gorgeous grouping of emus in the middle of an Australian salt lake, for example (below), was the product of his eye and his genius — but also of luck, in a couple of regards. The sun was setting just as he arrived at the scene, which made for the extraordinary color, but that same setting sun forced Spencer to run to get in place for his shot, though he knew that some salt lakes, when covered with water, act like quicksand. This one, fortunately for the book and for the photographer, did not.
As the technology has advanced, there are plenty of books with beautiful and accomplished bird photography (several of them have been reviewed on this site in the last year or two alone). But you won’t find another one quite like Birds: Poetry in the Sky. Handsomely printed and bound, sized large (10 5/6 x 13 3/8 in.), with 120 breathtaking photographs, it’s absolutely brilliant.
Birds: Poetry in the Sky. By Christian Spencer. teNeues Publishing UK Ltd., 224 pp., $70, November 20, 2022. ISBN: 9783961713882.
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